In Place of an Afterword: Sixty Years a Priest


On June 29, 2011, the Pope and his brother celebrated their "diamond priestly jubilee", the sixtieth anniversary of their ordination as priests on June 29, 1951, in the cathedral in Freising.

Two days previously, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger had flown to Rome for the occasion. After celebrating a private Mass in the private chapel of Benedict XVI, he attended at 9:30 the great Pontifical Solemn High Mass for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul in Saint Peter's Basilica. Even though the almost three-hour ceremony was centered on the bestowal of the pallium on forty metropolitan bishops from twenty-four countries on four continents, Benedict XVI still recalled in his homily the day that left a more lasting impression on him than any other event in his truly eventful life:

"'I no longer call you servants, but friends' (Jn 15:15). Sixty years on from the day of my priestly ordination, I hear once again deep within me these words of Jesus that were addressed to us new priests at the end of the ordination ceremony by the Archbishop, Cardinal Faulhaber, in his slightly frail yet firm voice. According to the liturgical practice of that time, these words conferred on the newly ordained priests the authority to forgive sins. ... At that moment I knew deep down that these words were no mere formality, nor were they simply a quotation from Scripture. I knew that, at that moment, the Lord himself was speaking to me in a very personal way. In baptism and confirmation he had already drawn us close to him, he had already received us into God's family. But what was taking place now was something greater still. He calls me his friend. He welcomes me into the circle of those he had spoken to in the Upper Room, into the circle of those whom he knows in a very special way, and who thereby come to know him in a very special way."

Shortly before his departure for Rome, I asked Georg Ratzinger for a résumé, so to speak, a look back on his own priesthood and the unusual career of his brother. Central to that interview, however, was the question of what it means in the first place to be a priest in our time.

Herr Domkapellmeister, when you look back on all these sixty years, in all honesty: Was your decision to enter the priesthood the right one; is it worthwhile to follow the Lord's call?

Absolutely! I cannot imagine at all how my life could have taken a different course. From childhood on, practically speaking, it was my goal, of which I never lost sight. And that is true of my brother, also: even though one thing or another did not develop as we had planned, nevertheless, the direction was clear from the beginning. So we both followed this path with all its consequences, and so today I can only say: I am heartily grateful to the dear Lord that he gave me the strength to travel this path without any ifs, ands, or buts. You simply sense his guidance and providence. Life holds certain difficulties in store for every human being, but if you have such a beautiful, fulfilling goal, if you sense that the Lord is near and you can follow so unwaveringly the way leading to him, then you can only exclaim with your whole heart: Deo gratias! (Thanks be to God!)

Does a priest receive more than he gives?

I think so; yes, you can put it that way!

When I gave a seminar in the Emmanuel School of Mission (ESM) in Altotting, I read the extraordinary motto of these young Christians who are involved in the missions, and I liked it very much: "Give all — get more!" Is that true also for priestly ministry?

Yes, by all means, that is correct. Above all, when a priest is engaged in pastoral care, when he then really makes an effort for the people and is not just watching the clock, he often receives infinitely rich blessings.

My Brother, the Pope
by Georg Ratzinger & Michael Hesemann

Unfortunately in B. for a time there was a pastor who publicly declared: "I don't let it burn me out!" That was a caricature of a priest, because anyone who thinks that way really should never have been allowed to be ordained. If someone really takes the care of souls to heart and sees in every human being he meets someone who wants to go to Christ, even though he knows that in the immediate situation the Lord's authority is expressed only in a weak priest, then he experiences such a great response, even from quarters where he actually would never have expected it. And I mean not just the gratitude of those with whom he deals directly; it comes then from quite different directions, also. That is when you first sense that it is really a blessing to be a priest. Someone who becomes a blessing for others is rewarded a thousandfold by the Lord and is then truly blessed. In that respect, the privilege of being a priest and serving the Lord is really a certain ideal.

What were the most beautiful moments in your priestly life?

That is difficult to say, actually. I have always understood my activity in the field of music to be pastoral work, also, for with everything we sang, even if it was not liturgical music, we tried to convey to people something of God's greatness. Even the secular pieces that do not lead us away from God communicate to us something of the glory of his creation.

But if you ask me about the most beautiful moments of my priestly life, then I have to say: It was always a solemn liturgy that we were able to help organize by means of magnificent music, in a beautiful church setting, in the worshipping community, when the people are reverent and a silence prevails that is not artificially created or commandeered but comes about on its own, precisely out of that reverence. A liturgy, though, in which the human senses are filled, too: the eye, the ear, and then the sense of smell through the incense, which also makes an important contribution. Those are indeed moments of happiness that you do not get in that form and intensity at a secular concert, however beautifully it is performed! This exaltation, this sense of being fulfilled and borne up at a Solemn High Mass, comes from somewhere else, after all, of that I am convinced!

Do you think that music is a subtler form of prayer?

I certainly could say that, yes! After all, the prayer of a human being, whether vocal prayer, common prayer, or even silent, private prayer, has its limits somewhere. Praise of God that is sung and set to music, in contrast, grips him holistically, not merely personally, the way he is. It lends him another, entirely new dimension, which vocal, mental, or meditative prayer cannot attain to the same extent.

Is music therefore also a path to God?

By all means, yes. It can also be a path leading away from him; think, for example, of the marching songs of the Hitler era or also the products of the secular entertainment industry, which only stir up human passions. Music can also be an instrument of the devil, but it is also an instrument of God.

Back to your brother, the Pope. In this conversation, we have reviewed his probably unique path from being a policeman's son to the leader of the universal Church, and it is time for the bottom line. What do you think? Does an unbroken thread run through the life of Benedict XVI, or was it an enormous accident that he finally became pope?

If you look at it from a purely human perspective, then of course it was chance. But when a believing person looks at his whole life, the way it unfolded, then he recognizes that it was a higher act of providence that led him purposefully to its goal — not to his! If you look at this path, how directly it actually ran: from a little acolyte to a theology student, then to an assistant pastor, an instructor, professor, prelate, bishop ... it is a stepladder in which each step had a particular meaning, on which he, practically speaking, kept moving forward, kept climbing a bit higher — not because he wanted it that way, not because he always advanced out of ambition, but because someone impelled him to take each of these steps, and he actually yielded only out of the conscientious fulfillment of his duty, constantly striving to perform the mission that was assigned to him.

There are many ambitious priests, indeed, regular careerists in the Church. Was he ever ambitious?

Personally, he was never ambitious, he really was not! But he was always conscientious and bore every responsibility that was imposed on him to the best of his ability. In doing so, he always had his doubts; he asked himself again and again whether he was really accomplishing in the best possible way what was being demanded of him, whether he was really doing everything he could to live up to the trust that others placed in him.

Did he ever consider even faintly the possibility of being elected pope?

No, he quite certainly did not. When Hans Küng claims that he was always striving for a position in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, that is sheer nonsense. I know him too well for that. He was convinced he had the special talent for explaining theology well and the grace to live this faith and to think correctly about it and that he was, therefore, actually a good teacher.

And that is precisely what he wanted to be, no more and no less; he saw that as his destiny. He never thought about any external honors in doing so; to him they were, instead, always unwelcome.

So he wanted simply to serve; as his motto says, he wanted to be a "co-worker of the truth" and to carry out this service well?

Quite right; that is exactly it.

And all the rest then happened automatically?

Yes, it happened by itself. I also know several priests who do their utmost to receive titles and honors, but that was never his style. He was always concerned about the matter at hand. He would like to perform his duty as well as he possibly can. For that reason, he has received certain talents along the way, and someday he will have to give an accounting of them.

In his first greeting to the people after his election as pope, he already called himself a "simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord" and that is probably quite honest, as he sees it. On meeting him, one notices that he is a profoundly humble, modest man. One always gets the impression that he approaches a matter rather tentatively and carefully, that he looks around first at how people are reacting to him. The applause, the honors, the presents, the jubilant crowds — all that seems unpleasant to him at first ...

. . . precisely because he senses quite clearly this boundary between the man and the office and knows his limits. Of course, he knows that all this applies, not to him personally, but rather to him as a representative of a higher authority, as pope. He certainly knows how to make that distinction. As pope, a man must accept all that with an open heart; as a person, it would not suit him.

What do you wish him for the future?

I wish with all my heart that my brother will be spared health problems as much as possible and that he can always carry out well and unhindered his ministry as the successor of Peter. And then I wish that someday "on the other side", where we will all have to pass the exam (Ex-Amen), the final test, he will stand before the heavenly examiner and everything will end well; I am convinced, though, that it will.

After all, throughout his life, he has always asked first what God's will is and then wholeheartedly strove to follow him wherever he led him.





Monsignor Georg Ratzinger & Michael Hesemann. "In Place of an Afterword: Sixty Years a Priest." excerpt from My Brother, the Pope (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012): 247-253.

Reprinted with permission from Ignatius Press.


Monsignor Georg Ratzinger is a Catholic priest and the elder brother of Pope Benedict XVI. Michael Hesemann is a German historian, journalist and author, specialized on Church history.

Copyright © 2012 Ignatius Press

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